SAMURAI SPY – Theatrical Combat Posing

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The 3rd of a 4-part look at the visual qualities of Masahiro Shinoda’s Ibun Sarutobi Sasuke

Without knowing even the decade they’re from, you can date ninja films from the way the actors and stuntmen move and pose. In the 50’s, movie wizards mimicked traditional paintings and gestured like kabuki actors. In the 80’s Sonny Chiba had his JAC folk posing like superheroes. The 2000s saw digitally assisted non-martial artists take over lead roles, so the filmmakers were always trying to hide the lack of physicality of pop stars or teen idols.

The redefined shinobi of the 60’s Japanese craze were coached by legit martial practitioners like Masaaki Hatsumi, with emphasis on credibility. The posing was right out of secret scrolls, they moved like commandos and did arcane spy tricks no one had seen before. From Raizo Ishikawa on the big screen to Maki Fuyukichi on TV, there was definitely a visual vocabulary used by the ninja stars of the day.

BUT… as we’ve established the last two days, Shinoda just had to do things differently, and Samurai Spy features some truly odd character posing and combat staging in some of the wierdest framing set-ups ever.

Sasuke, cornered like a rat, surrounded by aggressive enemies, strikes these defiant hero poses. There is, however, a certain quality of fear behind the bravado. He's stiff, uneasy, vulnerable, and remarkably under-armed for the full-scale battle he's entered.

Tanba's Sakon is a total contrast. He's a shifty spy with a lot to hide, but he hides in plain sight - from the white robes to these decidedly un-ninja-like, Musashi-esque twin sword poses. His is an equally false bravado, maybe brought on by overconfidence.

This duel is as stiff and ritualized as kabuki theater. There is no flow, each move is isolated, stopped on a beat, and followed by an overly dramatic gesture in return. A primitive fight amidst an amazingly advanced and complex film that always leaves you guessing...

From the way Sasuke holds his katana to the placement of crucial characters way to the sides of uncluttered frames, everything in SS is different from its contemporaries. The more I scrutinize this film, the more I’m thinking it might be the weirdest ninja movie ever made.

Tomorrow: Often flashing so fast they barely register, we look at some absolutely gorgeous cutaway close-ups, and one of the strangest ninja weapons ever put on screen.

Buy the highly recommended Criterion DVD at VN’s Amazon store.

SAMURAI SPY – Use of Shadow (and Light) to Obscure Characters

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The 2nd of a 4-part look at the visual qualities of Masahiro Shinoda’s Ibun Sarutobi Sasuke

Last time we established the agenda of director Masahiro Shinoda and cinematographer Masao Kosugi to mirror the confusion and conflict of Sasuke with an equal amount of visual disruption for the viewer. From the opening frames, characters are obscured from what in a more conventional film would be normal view. Shadows are nothing new in post Shinobi-no-mono films, but Samurai Spy uses sunlight and mist just as often.

The first scenes in which we see Sasuke, he's nervously wandering a misty cane field, knowing he's being followed, but also realizing he can't see ten feet in front of him either.
Later, an uneasy cease-fire with Sakon, where motivations and morals are obscured by the same reeds. It's a long scene, and the bright cane is constantly (and deliberately) interfering in the composition.
When we do pull out of the frustrating reeds, its to overly wide and distant shots like this. The very distance obscures...
But, this wouldn't be a ninja movie without shadows. They use contrast and chiaroscuro so effectively here, even the white-robed Sakon is thrown into menacing shadow.

Even the conventional use of shadow - during invasions, escapes, hiding, etc. is on a level above the rival films of the time. Just amazing.
But then you get shots like this, which in anyone else's movie is a huge mistake. It's a full-on fight scene, you know who's who, but they chose to hide Sasuke's face. Almost like engaging in the combat is obscuring his very identity from himself.
Overhead shots also obscure the faces - and thus the emotions - of characters. I really love how this shot in a courtyard has a similar texture to the shark skin of the title card.

There is so much mist in daylight at film's end, I can actually picture the climax without revealing any spoilers!

Poor Sasuke… who is friend, who is enemy? Is he doing right or wrong? Is there even a right or wrong to be found? There are no easy answers, regardless of the lighting conditions.

Tomorrow: – some of the weirdest theatrical combat posing and framing ever.

Buy the highly recommended Criterion DVD at VN’s Amazon store.

SAMURAI SPY – Geometry and Lines in Composition

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The 1st of a 4-part look at the visual qualities of Masahiro Shinoda’s Ibun Sarutobi Sasuke

A diagonal cut over a square grid, the interrupting movement of the spy actually reinforces the fact he's somewhere he doesn't belong.

It doesn’t take long to realize that director Masahiro Shinoda and cinematographer Masao Kosugi were up to something different in Samurai Spy. Different for a ninja movie, or any movie really. The use of lines to point the eye of the viewer is fundamental movie making, but here, the lines are often pointing away from the central character or action of the scene. Other times they crash into each other or cross at weird points. The geometry provides visual clues that pay off with lies, broken rules of compositional physics designed to confuse the viewer as much as the political and moral intrigue of the plot is confusing Sasuke himself.

Sasuke faces Sakon for the first time. The angles are like borders or fences to cross, in addition to the distance, before they can fight. It's a batle that shouldn't even really happen at this point, and it ends with a surprising explosion of upward movement that breaks the gridlines of the bridge. Bridges play an important part later as well.

In the liner notes of Criterion’s DVD, Alain Silver, author of the indispensable The Samurai Film, refers to the visual craft of SS as a “graphic scheme” with “angular and conflicting lines of force,” and those lines clutter frames, confuse the viewer, and ultimately support an underlying theme of the movie – nothing is as it seems and no one can be trusted. You can’t even trust the photography…

Capture lines pull the main character in every direction, just like the plot.
A stoic and rather geometric pose defies the arrows pelting the grid lines of the door behind Sasuke. As it plays out on screen, this whole escape sequence is just tense as all hell.

Samurai Spy ends with a lot of action atop elevated foot bridges. Sakon and Sasuke first meet on a suspension rope bridge, with the martial arts action (stunning slow-motion leaps) defying the horizontal confining lines of the architecture on which they fight. Their final meeting is on a seemingly endless linear walkway. An easy metaphor would have been for the final battle to take place at this bridge’s end, but fighting in the middle of this long expanse makes the symbollic timing of their skirmish just as unpredictable (and like a real life conflict, illogical) as the rest of the film.

It all comes down to dramatic theatrical fight poses (discussion of these coming day 3) interrupting the grid lines of tilled land and constructed bridge. Astounding planning went into these fights that, while nothing to write home about in the raw martial arts department, convey real tension and high drama via composition instead.

Tomorrow: both shadows AND light serve to obscure characters and add mystery.

Buy the highly recommended Criterion DVD at VN’s Amazon store.

A visual breakdown of SAMURAI SPY (intro)

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It was the Summer of 1984, the height and heat of the American craze. Revenge of the Ninja was running on HBO, Ninja III: The Domination was about to hit theaters, Spanish-dubbed episodes of Lone Wolf and Cub ran on late-night Galavision. We thought we were sated.

Then, this little gem hit newsstands:

Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s articles showed us a frustratingly limited glimpse of the source waters of our American ninja craze. SAMURAI SPY was prominently pictured.

I bought the very copy pictured here of Inside Kung-Fu‘s special issue The Master Ninja: Warrior of the Night because like all shinobi-obsessed teens at the time, you bought ANYTHING ninja-related, and magazines by the ream. This one had more than the usual Hayes techniques and weapons fetish, though, it had four articles on film. The one that just KILLED us was “Challenge of the Ninja Films.”

Six pages of myths made real – like photo proof of the Loch Ness Monster to a cryptozoologist – we stared dumbfounded at actual evidence of Japanese ninja films. GOOD ninja films, serious, artistically superior, historically credible ninja films. Ninja films we had no chance of seeing. It was wondrous and torturous at the same time. Shinobi-no-Mono? Watari? What were these fantastic alien entities whose very notion was as baffling as the monolith was to the monkey-men of 2001: A Space Odyssey?!?!?

OK, I gotta reign myself in here…

The short of it: 15-year old Keith was rather tormented by the fact that a Samurai Spy was out there, and the U.N. wasn’t passing a global resolution to put it in his hands immediately. That’s why decades later, 36-year old Keith was all over the Criterion DVD release of said Samurai Spy like a fly on shit. FINALLY!

I just adore this title card. The background is a macro-photo of a sword hilt covered in shark or ray skin.
The film’s star KOJI TAKAHASHI has as striking a face and profile as any other visual in the film. Criterion’s DVD release has the typically superb packaging design.

So now, four and a half years after the 2005 Masahiro Shinoda retrospecticve box set raised the ceiling for me on how artistically adventurous a ninja movie could be, I’m delighted to actually express some editorial adoration. The 1965 redefining of the often visited Sarutobi Sasuke character is a film that while certainly released in the fervor of the 60’s Japanese craze, was on a level above much of its competition. Maybe too far above for some.

Ibun Sarutobi Sasuke is not an easy film to process. Brilliant to some, failure to others. Most ninja fans see it on the highest end of the shinobi scale, while many chambara or general Japanese cinemaphiles see it on the lower end of the Shinoda/samurai scale.

TETSURO TANBA is masterful as the villain in the white monks robes.

Me, after all these years, I was probably going to love SS no matter what. But repeated viewings over the last four years have cemented it as a personal fave, mainly for it’s visual quality. It is with a little intimidation that I now present some of those qualities. This is an important film to me, with a long history, so I wanted VN’s exploration of it to be something special.

Thus, I’ll approach this a lot differently than other articles here. I’m going to break down Shinoda’s striking visuals into four categories apparent throughout the film;

– Geometry and Lines in Composition

– Use of Shadow (and Light) to Obscure Characters

– Theatrical Combat Posing

– Dramatic Use of Quick Close-Ups

Samurai Spy is a much-reviewed film, but I haven’t seen anyone really break-down its visual language. I hope I do it justice.

SAMURAI SPY features some great use of slow motion during combat. The staging is innovative as hell, fights here don’t look like anything else in shinobi cinema.
Couple of nifty innovative transitions, too, however the real underlying strength of SS is…
…the cinematography of MASAO KOSUGI. Even the everyday street scenes display a phenomenal command of light and shadow, and depth of field.

Part 1 of 4 starts tomorrow. In the meantime:

Buy the superb Criterion DVD from Amazon.

Read an erudite chihuahua’s review of both this film and other versions of Sasuke at a sight we often recommend, The Weird Wild Realm, which in a neato piece of universal convergence, is supervised by none other than the writer of that very same 1984 article!

Revenge of the Menkos

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Now these are some awesome menko cards! Watari the Ninja Boy, Sasuke, Tange Saezen and more, represented by original art from the card company – hence the slightly off model illos. And do we really need that male nudity???


This un-punched sheet of circular menkos is a lot more off-model. I’m pretty sure two of them are supposed to be Kagemaru of Iga, but the rest are a crapshoot.

arashi menkos

OK, the rectangular Henshin Ninja Arashi cards are pretty good, but that circular ‘POG’-like one in the middle is just awful! But these aren’t the best of the worst…

Kaiketsu Lion Maru my ass… I’m calling total bullshit on the disc on the right! That’s just some nature book painting of a lion’s head with some hastily drawn gloves coming in from the sides. Even the more on-model rectangular card is pretty wonky in the too-human face. Looks more like that old Ron Pearlman Beauty and the Beast TV monster than the white-maned transforming ninja hero of the 70’s.


Osamu Tezuka’s ninja

posted in: 2 - Books and Manga | 0

It’s ComiCon week here in SoCal, so I’ll be posting a lot of manga and comics stuff over the next few days. We’ll start things with the king – the emperor? – the ultimate genius?  Hmm, I just don’t have the art theory vocabulary to do Osamu Tezuka justice, so I won’t even try.

So here’s a cover and splash page from his 1960 manga Ore wa Sarutobi da! (I Am Sarutobi!), a re-imagining of shinobi kid’s hero Sarutobi Sasuke:



Special thanks to Eddie Mort!

A primer on the history of “NINJA”

(adapted from an article originally published on

“Ninja” is a relatively modern word that has come to summarize a wide range of military practices, martial arts traditions and popular entertainment themes in one iconic black-hooded package.

The black suit (worn day or night), requisite throwing stars and straight sword, arsenals of weird spy gadgets, superhuman athleticism, near-magical powers of stealth and hypnosis, mastery of arcane poisons and assassination techniques, fanatical cult dedication in contrast to a mercenary nature — all qualities irrevocably tied to the shinobi. However one can argue that ninja never did exist in the broadly summarized way we see them now. A lot of people profited greatly from propagating a completely unreal story of the shinobi, and there’s seven or eight centuries worth of mythmaking and mass marketing to deal with while sifting for the historical truth.


You can look at ninja history in three different aspects:

Military History (OR: A History of Common Sense in Japanese Warfare)

Ninja, or more specifically shinobi-ku — units of warriors trained in specialized commando tactics — hold a special fascination for modern military historians. In an age of ritualized combat and strict codes of battlefield behavior, the use of these units became one of history’s first organized applications of what we today call Special Forces. Typical samurai behavior, like challenging each other to duels or collecting heads of fallen rivals for personal glory, did not an efficient battlefield campaign make. So, going as far back as the 1300s, “shadow-skilled” specialists were used for then novel tasks like monitoring troop movements, mapping layouts of enemy strongholds, and targeting command figures to disrupt enemy maneuvers.

By the 1500s, feudal lords were using castle raiding units to sneak into enemy fortresses dressed as guards, starting fires or attacking other guards to suggest a fortress mutiny, generally causing all sorts of anarchy inside while the formal military crept forward outside. A variety of specialized military or employed mercenary troops throughout Japan’s feudal era can be considered under the vague “ninja” umbrella: rappa were bandit gangs used to plague enemy territories, kusa referred to special sentries hidden in tall grass, sutekamari no jutsu was the practice of leaving snipers behind retreating armies to take shots at the advancing enemy’s officers, and kesshi were suicide squads.

In the 1580s, Japan was unified by the Napoleon-like Hideyoshi Toyotomi, and 23 years later Ieyasu Tokugawa became Shogun. The bloodsoaked fuedal era was over, as was the boom period for outré military specialists and contractors. The need for shinobi-ku on the battlefield may have waned, but the perceived need of the shadow-skill set was a different matter entirely. Their techniques were seen as vital to keeping the machinations of the new peace well oiled.

Ieyasu Tokugawa perhaps saw it best, and rewarded the famed warrior Hattori Hanzo and the surviving ‘men of Iga’ jobs as his personal bodyguards. Iga province, fabled birthplace of the ninja, had been seen as a major threat by Tokugawa’s predecessor Oda Nobunaga. He invaded the mountainous territory in 1579, and was routed by a display of guerilla tactics that must have horrified the samurai army of 12,000. He returned two years later with six armies (44,000 troops) and in a brutal application of the ‘scorched earth policy’ razed the modest province and decimated its population. After Nobunaga’s untimely death, Tokugawa sheltered the remnants of Iga’s warrior elite as his own, both surrounding himself with a capable guard and eliminating a potential vengeful threat by co-opting the very people previously so feared. The example was followed by much of the new politic, ninja were a must-have addition to any insecure lord’s peacetime army.

Regardless of how legit the threat of shinobi agents actually was, ninja paranoia made for good business, particularly for anti-ninja consultants (often ninja themselves) as well as architects specializing in anti-ninja housing. Equipped with slippery walls, hidden viewports and creaking floors, these ninja-proof buildings are actually popular tourist attractions today.

The gravesite of Hattori Hanzo, equal parts history and profitable tourist attraction.

Martial Arts Traditions (and the not-so-secret secret scrolls)

Sun Tzu’s profound Art of War introduced the very concepts of special forces, intelligence gathering and sabotage to the Japanese as far back as the 7th Century AD. That seed grew into a thriving industry for samurai families choosing to specialize in “shadow skills.” Contrary to traditions of ritualized warfare and rigid martial arts practices, these services required out-of-the-box training, innovative methods, and an array of gadgetry that would baffle anyone outside the discipline.

When the age of internal warfare ceased in Japan, centuries of shadow skills were saved from obscurity by astute families adapting the successes of the battlefield to the new political era facing them. Loosely organized tricks of the trade were codified into “ryu” — what we would call ‘styles’ — sort of organic museums of martial arts traditions. Here’s where you get the vaunted “secret scrolls” being handed down through generations, rife with brushed ink illustrations of archaic weapons and curious spyware. As the world grew up and ninja were less and less needed (or in many opinions, the world caught up to the shinobi), some of these ryu endured as a sort of archeological record of a martial past.

Togakure Ryu was one such enduring tradition, and this style ensured it’s survival like no other — it embraced modern media and expanded it’s teaching’s worldwide. The style’s last full Grandmaster Toshitsugu Takamatsu spent the last 15 years of his life training the current godfather of worldwide ninjutsu Masaki Hatsumi. Together they served as technical advisors to popular ninja films and found great success publishing ninja books. Hatsumi trained Europeans and Americans in the traditions of his art and licensed them to spread the ryu worldwide, fueling a global explosion of modern ninja training in the 1980s.


Popular Entertainment (a scroll may tell a thousand secret words, but a PICTURE…)

It is the iconography of the ninja — the alluring image of the black-suited warrior with the exotic weapons — that more often than not defines “ninja.” Sensationalized notions of the ninja go back as far as the shinobi’s genuine history, and were even encouraged back in the day by families hiring-out their services or commandos planting terrifying ideas into already paranoid palace guards.

Ninja ‘fish tales’ and popular lore go back to the 1500s (and further by some definitions), and were kept alive by kodanshi traveling performers and kabuki stage dramas. Popular novels and illustrations of the 1700-1800s finally lock down the image of the shinobi in the classic black suit and sinister mask. A lot of what I call “retro-shinobification” took place, too, as historical figures were given credit for being ninja whether they had been or not. Myriad military commanders and common thieves had their portraits inked-over with black night suits and their bios spiced up with sensational shinobi activity.

In general, popular lore became popular media and the image and notion of what the public WANTED to believe was “ninja” replaced any credible military history or martial arts tradition.

The 20th Century saw three distinct “ninja booms”:

  • 1910-1920s – A monkey in every kid’s pocket!
Tachikawa Bunko (Pocket Books) become all the rage when the 40th volume of the kid’s novel series features the “Leaping Monkey” Sarutobi Sasuke. Previously, ninja were portrayed as vile villains or trouble-making wizards, but now shinobi were redefined as superheroes, and we’ve never looked back.
  • 1960s – Ninja come to manga and the movies!
The 60’s saw explosions in both whimsical fantasy flicks and historically credible fare both on the pulp page and the silver screen. Anything and everything ninja sold, they were all over TV, the toy shelf, product advertising and even pornography. Although some of this media wave was exported to markets in Australia and Italy, none of it made it here. We were SOOOOOOO robbed!
  • 1980sWe Want Our Black Ninja, AND WE WANT HIM NOW!
American film studios race to get out a ninja flick, based on the buzz created by Eric Van Lustbader‘s best-selling novel The Ninja. Alas, the exploitation filmmakers beat the big guys to the punch, and for better or worse, Sho Kosugi, Chuck Norris and Michael Dudikoff would come to define ninja to American audiences. At the same time, ninja training became the rage in the martial arts world, the turtles hit comics and TV, and ninja were everywhere… EVERYWHERE!
It was a grand decade in black, but eventually the very word ‘ninja’ became poison. Media witch-hunters chose mail order weapons as the ruin-of-society-du-jour. Ninja movies devolved into horrendous Hong Kong exploitation, or trite kids comedies. Then the kickboxers took over martial arts cinema in the 90’s and ninja were yesterday’s news. We never got that high-end American ninja movie we should have, and the rental market went to the gutter-grade material so quick there was nary a thought to import the high-end Japanese stuff from decades past.

Sho Kosugi goes apeshit and ignites the ninja craze in 1981's ENTER THE NINJA

This humble article is less about ninja history than it is an illustration of WHY ninja history is so challenging. The skeptical historian can call B.S. on the very existence of ninja, the martial arts student can have blind faith in the pedigree of his “secret way,” and the movie buff can wander the grey area in between.

Then there’s this thought – even if it’s all a bunch of hype, isn’t 500+ years of lore and sensationalism history unto itself?

Try the following resources for more information:

Our recommended reading list on Amazon

The writings of Stephen Turnbull

Roy Ron’s Ninpo History

The Warrior Information Network